Sitting with Violence
War with Iraq, paramilitary deaths I squads in Columbia, the 11,000 people killed by guns each
year in the United States, or the destruction on September 11th (2001 and 19731) – violence in one
or more of its forms weighs heavily on all of us these days. To sort through the complex issues
surrounding violence, some people have turned to religions, Including Buddhism. In its treatment
of violence, however, the Buddhist tradition offers mixed messages.
On the one hand, Buddhist texts, doctrines, and ritual practices advocate ahimsā, non-harming
or nonviolence. The Buddha reportedly told his followers (Dhammapada, ch. 10),
All are afraid of the rod.
Of death all are afraid.
Having made oneself the example,
One should neither slay nor cause to slay.2
The first of the five precepts (pañca śīlāni) admonishes us to refrain from taking life, and early
monastic codes list the taking of life as one of the four grave offenses.3 Mahayana texts carry this
rejection of violence forward; for example, the Daśabhūmika-sūtra proclaims that Buddhists "must
not hate any being and cannot kill a living creature even in thought."4 Historically, Buddhists have
formulated institutional and ritual supports for this ideal, as seen in the uposatha ceremony when
Theravadan monks twice a month recite the precepts and confess transgressions.
Despite these apparently universalist admonitions against killing others, Buddhism equivocates.
Several sutras recount how the historical Buddha killed people in his past lives to protect the
innocent or protect the Dharma, and thereby also protect near-murderers5 or slanderers 6 from
karmic retribution in hell. The Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra allows for situations when not only the
Buddha but his followers must ignore the first precept and take up arms to protect the Dharma.7
This sutra also exhorts the laity to use force to protect the sangha.8 And in the commentarial
literature, Buddhist thinkers have set forth elaborate justifications of violence.9 Historically, some
With U.S. backing, on September 11th, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet toppled the democratically elected president
of Chile, Salvadore Allende. Like the loss of life in 2001, approximately 3000-4000 people were killed, almost all by
Pinochet forces during and following the coup.
Carter, John Ross, and Mahinda Palihawadana, tr., The Dhammapada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.
In the Pātimokkha (Skt. Prātimoksa, a code of precepts), killing another human being is one of the four "offenses of
defeat," and as punishment for this transgression the guilty monk or nun is to be immediately expelled from the order.
Charles Prebish, Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Pratimoksa Sutras of the Mahasamghikas and
Mulasarvastivadins (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), p. 11.
Cited in Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner,
and Co., 1931), p. 199; quoted by Kenneth Kraft, ed., Inner Peace, World Peace: Essays on Buddhism and
Nonviolence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 5.
The Upāyakauśalya-sūtra relates how in a past life the Buddha killed a man to keep him from killing others and
suffering the consequences in hell; though exposing the Buddha to the possibility of spending time in hell himself, this
action, as an expression of compassion, actually advanced the Buddha--technically, at that point a bodhisattva--on his
path and enabled the man he killed to be reborn in one of the realms of heaven. Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism:
The Doctrinal Foundations (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 145.
In the Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra the historical Buddha states that in an earlier life he killed several brahmins for
slandering the Dharma and thereby spared them the retribution that would follow from their actions. Williams, p. 161.
One passage reads, "Men of devout faith, defenders of the True Dharma, need not observe the five precepts or practice
the rules of proper behavior. Rather they should carry knives and swords, bows and arrows, prongs and lances."
Quoted by Nichiren, Risshō-ankoku-ron, in Philip Yampolsky, tr., Selected Writings of Nichiren (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1990), p. 33.
Williams, p. 159.
In his chapter on ethics in the Bodhisattva-bhūmi (Bodhisattva Stage), Asanga (310-90) seems to draw from the
Upāyakauśalya-sūtra in advancing the utilitarian argument that killing one person can be justified if it functions to
save the lives of others or to prevent the potential murderer from falling into hell. He writes, "...the bodhisattva may
behold a robber or thief engaged in committing a great many deeds of immediate retribution, being about to murder
many hundreds of magnificent beings...for the sake of a few material goods. Seeing it, he forms this thought in his
Buddhists have followed the lead of these reinterpretations and qualifications of the doctrine of
ahimsā: Buddhist thinkers have legitimated violence in particular situations; Buddhist sectarian
groups have engaged in warfare; and Buddhist institutions have publicly supported violence by
rulers and their armies.
This is the tradition in which contemporary Buddhists find themselves. To negotiate our way
through the issues surrounding violence, we are left to our own exegetical devices. At the very
least, however, Buddhism offers resources for our critiques, our personal wrestling with violence,
and our active responses to it, that is to say, resources for theoretical analysis, religious practice,
and political praxis.
Insofar as Buddhism strives to cultivate insight into interrelational arising (pratīitya-
samutpāda or śūnyatā), Buddhists are compelled to explore the causes of violence. A genuinely
Buddhist response to, for example, the September 11th violence is to probe its root causes. Was it
caused by "evil doers" whose ontological make-up compelled them to lash out at all that is good?
Was it caused by fanatics, evil or otherwise, who hate the American way of life and take special
offense at women in tank tops? Should we stop our causal analysis there, as is the preference of
the President and many other Americans? What about several hundred years of Western
imperialism and the concomitant oppression and humiliation of Muslims? What about the
lingering effects of U.S. support for—and what was later perceived as betrayal of—Osama Bin
Laden and other Muslims who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan? 10 What has been the
causal role of U.S. support for repressive regimes in the Muslim world, or the lingering U.S.
military presence near sacred Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia? Or our tacit approval of Israeli policies
in the Occupied Territories? How might we analyze the role of globalization in exacerbating the
international maldistribution of wealth, especially in the face of longstanding Islamic commitment
to helping those in need? And what has been the role of Wahhābīya, especially when backed by
royalty and wealth, or unpopular Arab regimes' deflection of local discontent away from
themselves and onto the bogeyman of a decadent, secular West?
The need to pursue systemic analysis of causal factors, direct and indirect, is perhaps most
pressing for Buddhists in the United States. As Eqbal Ahmad has astutely pointed out, when it
comes to "terrorism," the U.S. government demonstrates little interest in rigorously exploring
causation.11 Indeed, the Bush Administration has largely succeeded in large part in making its
representation—of evil-doers who hate freedom, democracy, and other features of Western
culture—nearly hegemonic in U.S. civic discourse, effectively silencing analyses that extend
beyond such facile causal explanations.
Though Buddhism may not offer any distinctive tools for analyzing the broader historical,
political, and economic causes of 9/11, it does offer a framework for exploring psychological
causes of violence. Central to the Buddhist analysis of the cause of duhkha (suffering) is the
doctrine of the Three Poisons: greed or craving, anger or hatred, and ignorance. Buddhism prods us
to look at these defilements in ourselves and those who might confront us, and how, in each of us
as both perpetrator and victim of violence, these hindrances derive from certain conditions and
cause certain actions. The second of these defilements, anger and hatred, relates most directly to
violence. The force of the Buddhist argument about the Three Poisons compels us to investigate the
mind: 'If I take the life of this sentient being, I myself may be reborn as one of the creatures of hell. Better that I be
reborn a creature of hell than that this living being, having committed a deed of immediate retribution, should go
straight to hell.' With such an attitude the bodhisattva ascertains that the thought is virtuous or indeterminate and then,
feeling constrained, with only a thought of mercy for the consequence, he takes the life of that living being. There is
no fault, but a spread of much merit." Mark Tatz, tr., Asanga's Chapter on Ethics with the Commentary of Tsong-Kha-
Pa, The Basic Path to Awakening, the Complete Bodhisattva (Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), pp. 70-
Eqbal Ahmad, "Straight Talk on Terrorism," Monthly Review 58/8 (January 2002), p. 53.
In an essay on terrorism, Eqbal Ahmad cites a New York Times article about how the foreign minister or Yugoslavia
in 1985 asked Secretary of State George Shultz about the causes of violence perpetrated by Palestinians; in response
Shultz "went a bit red in the face. He pounded on the table and told the visiting foreign minister, There is no
connection with any cause. Period." Ahmad, "Straight Talk on Terrorism," p. 48.
contours and source of Al Qaeda anger, while cautioning Americans about our own anger,
especially insofar as it may distort our analysis and trick us into choosing rash vengeance.
Then there is the poison of greed or craving. How has American greed, especially our cravings
for cheap oil, fostered anger around the world? And what about the cravings of those who would
exploit the discontent of impoverished Muslims to promote apocalyptic agendas?
And how do we work with ignorance, whether the broad ideological brush that paints the West
as Satan or the habitual rationalizations and denials by Americans as we pursue material interests in
the guise of promoting freedom or democracy, and in this way deny moral culpability for the uglier
dimensions of our foreign policy and international business dealings? What should we do with the
ignorance that accepts official representations of the country as consistently on the side of freedom
and democracy around the world? How can we resist corporate influence on the media? Who are
the Buddhist intellectuals that can speak truth to the ignorance of the broad negative fruits of
unilateral (or U.S.-British) military action to bring about regime change, or the ignorance behind
Francis Fukuyama's triumphialist rhetoric about the ―end of history‖ or overstated civilizational
explanations of global tensions? Despite what the Samuel Huntingtons of the world declare, it is
not at all clear that we are engaged primarily in a clash of civilizations. Though civilizational
factors do play a causal role, Huntington's emphasis on them (or for that matter, Buddhist
overemphasis on ostensibly universal epistemologies and psychological tendencies) masks key
structural factors, such as the economic and political ramifications of globalization.12
Another Buddhist analytical tool is the Zen critique of dualistic conceptualization, glaringly
obvious in the simplistic and incendiary dichotomies between good and evil that have been offered
by Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush. One does not need to be a Buddhist to recognize the
polarizing nature of such essentialist characterizations, and the degree to which they lead to
ideological rigidity. This reification of an "us" and a "them" as inherently good and evil also
exacerbates the objectification and dehumanization of those who threaten us. The wartime
portrayal of the enemy as evil, or fanatical, that is, irrational and vaguely insane (Saddam) if not
bestial ("Mad Dog" Khaddafi), and hence not meriting moral standing, functions at the extreme end
of the dualistic epistemology roundly criticized by Zen, the tendency to experience reality only as a
set of objects apart from the self and to become ensconced in that outlook. History attests to how
these dehumanized representations can trigger annihilationist programs if not full-blown
apocalyptic crusades. While Bin Laden, Bush, and their apocalyptic supporters may not be
disposed to recognize the ambiguity of human actors or the dangers of starkly dualistic
characterization, in the service of more nuanced and productive analysis, we need to reject their
dualism. (As a Buddhist I also take issue with the naïve dualism (and veiled threat) in Bush
statements about being either "with us" or "against us" in the war on terrorism, especially when
most countries are neither.)
Though my talk of ―apocalyptic‖ crusades may border on hyperbole here, I am struck by how
the messianic if not apocalyptic vision of certain evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in and
around the Bush administration have coloured rhetoric about the war on terrorism (and have in
certain Christian circles generated fervent support for the state of Israel as a necessary condition for
the Second Coming of Christ).13 Possible apocalyptic tendencies are worth monitoring as the U.S.
strives to reassert its invulnerability and superpower omnipotence by massively deploying military
power in Afghanistan, pledging to hunt down every last Al Qaeda member ("dead or alive"), and,
as outlined in the Bush Administration's recent national security statement, attempting to dominate
any government deemed threatening, whether the Taliban or the current Iraqi regime. (As Bernard
Lewis has argued, radical Islamists may be trying to reassert past Islamic domination as well.)
Revealingly, in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington virtually ignores
globalization and such institutions as the WTO. In an essay entitled "The West Against the Rest?
A Buddhist Response to 'The Clash of Civilizations,'" David R. Loy offers a critique of the 1993 article that formed the
basis of The Clash of Civilizations.
In this regard, the a-teleological if not dysteleological character of Buddhism, which is often pointed out as a
shortcoming for Buddhist social ethics, may actually be a blessing.
Drawing from its own resources and thinkers like Robert J. Lifton, Buddhism can shed light on
these attempts by our collective ego to regain supposed invulnerability by ridding the world of evil
dangers, especially insofar as these attempts emerge from our fear, "psychic numbing," and the
hope of controlling our world if not death itself (a kind of grand overcompensation?).
Needless to say, violence in general and 9/11 in particular do not hit me as a mere theoretical
problem, an issue to be addressed solely through the intellect. Like all of you, I feel 9/11 in my gut.
And it is there, the center of my breathing and my practice of zazen, that I sit with the images and
the loss. Zazen constitutes the main container for my own fear, anger, and sadness around that and
other violence. And as something with which I sit, 9/11 offers a stark lesson in impermanence. It
makes me aware of the fragility of bodies, our loved ones, our accomplishments, our possessions,
and all the other seemingly impenetrable walls of the self-protective ego. That violence especially
challenges any false sense of security I might have had as a privileged resident of the United States.
And at the collective level, 9/11 burst the bubble of U.S. exceptionalism—the idea, the delusion,
that with our wealth, military might, and geographical location we are invulnerable, or at least
generally immune to the insecurity faced by other people around the world. The attacks last
September provided an opportunity to recognize the violence and vulnerability in which most of
humankind lives, and not just the violence of ostensibly singular events like 9/11 but violence on
an ongoing, less conspicuous, or less acknowledged scale, as seen in the violence of economic
exploitation and political repression, in structural violence and state violence (if not state
terrorism). The attacks on 9/11 also provided a wake-up call insofar as they opened American eyes
to the anger many people around the world feel toward the United States. In short, it offered a
jarring opportunity to glimpse the world free from the distortions wrought by our entanglement in
the particular American configuration of greed, hatred, and ignorance.
But September 11th is not something that happened fourteen months ago. It was a long day, and
it isn't over. It still moves in all of us, and none of us has the luxury of gazing at it retrospectively
in some position of regained security. At the emotional level, perhaps the most skilful response is
to sit with, and in, the event. Zazen offers a structure for sitting with and being mindful of my
shock, my fear of death, my fear around recent economic vulnerability, my clinging to whatever
wealth or imagined security I might have, and my own urge for revenge, or at least subtle
satisfaction at images of Taliban positions getting shelled around Kabul last year.
Buddhist practice can also help loosen fixed senses of self, entrenched characterizations of
others, and rigid ideologies. It promotes the epistemological breadth, conceptual flexibility, and
fluidity of response necessary for encountering violence without slipping into the vicious circle of
attack and counter-attack, or of competing and ultimately mutually-reinforcing discourses of
suffering and victimhood. It can thus help foster the antidotes to the Three Poisons: generosity,
loving kindness (or compassion), and wisdom. And with cultivated mindfulness we can see more
deeply into the process of interrelational arising on a global scale, recognize the need to respond
with wisdom and compassion to unavoidable and at times painful change, and deal skillfully with
the power of others help or harm us. (And at the deepest level, zazen can confirm the "place"
beyond security and insecurity, beyond pre-9/11 and post-9/11.)
The process of receptive sitting also cultivates the kind of openness and sincere listening so
foreign to angry terrorists and arrogant Americans alike. Not that we should accept all that we hear,
whether the simplistic rants of George W. Bush about a new crusade or Islamist tirades about
Uncle Sam as the Great Satan. Nor does careful listening preclude skilful responses: we do need
international police and policing actions, far preferable to a "war" on terrorism, a mental construct
that, along with Bush's comment about a new crusade, feeds directly into the Manichean worldview
of those who would all too gladly fight a war to the ultimate end.14 That is to say, in the stead of the
rule of military might in a war on terrorism, a more skilful and compassionate response to 9/11 is
A "war" on terrorism logically calls for warriors, which could include Buddhists, given all the talk in Tibetan and
Zen circles about warriors, spiritual or otherwise. But perhaps a more useful model than the "warrior" is that of the
compassionate cop, doing his best to help the community and using violence only begrudging when it is an
unavoidable last resort to restrain those who would do harm to others.
the rule of law, ideally through a collaborative international police force and international criminal
court that could apprehend, arrest, prosecute, and isolate those who would commit or support
terror, whether Osama Bin Laden, Augusto Pinochet, or Henry Kissinger.
Part of the Buddhist critique of ignorance can take the form of rejecting American unilateralism
and calling on the United States to promote democratic self-determination, global distributive
justice, and consistency in its denunciations of terroristic violence. From a Buddhist perspective,
this seems to be in the United States' ultimate interest, not as a hegemonic superpower trying to
maintain its dominance, but as a champion of multilateralism, of synergistic power-with others
rather than power-over them (as Joanna Macy has put it), of a community of nations cooperating to
meet the basic needs of all people.
In such a global community American Buddhists and Christians (and Jews) can more easily
affirm their commonality with others around the world, especially with Muslims whose tradition
speaks loudly on social justice and the option for the poor. We can meet Muslims as co-
conspirators in a movement (not a war) against exploitation, poverty, and despair, a movement for
peace, justice, and ecological health, for a world in which ignorance, greed, and hatred have been
replaced by wisdom, generosity, and compassion.
Of course, this long-term utopic vision of a Buddhistically mutual and multilateral world is all
fine and well, but the short-term scenario demands attention. What do we do in the meantime, in
the face of continued acts of violence, like those on 9/11? In the Dhammapada we read:
Not by enmity are enmities quelled,
Whatever the occasion here.
By the absence of enmity are they quelled.
This is an ancient truth.15
But is not violence in response to imminent threat to innocent life acceptable from a Buddhist
perspective, at least judging from some sutras? And how can we protect ourselves and still avoid
the vicious cycle of violence, of attack and counterattack, and increasing distrust and long-term
harm on both sides, serving only those who would recruit for Al Qaeda or lobby for an aggressive
U.S. stance in the world. Might Buddhists be able to articulate their own just war theory, a
doctrine of acceptable violence as a last resort, in the face of an imminent threat of the loss of
(innocent) life, at a minimal level of force, and without enmity, as an expression of a commitment
to minimal suffering, not of ignorance, greed, and hatred? Or is just-war theory a slippery slope, a
method that is easily co-opted, and hard to apply whenever reliable and accurate information
proves hard to obtain in the midst of possible disinformation and fearmongering? In the aftermath
of 9/11 and on the brink of escalated conflict in the Middle East, these questions seem worth
pondering, ideally in dialogue with our cousins in other religions.
15. Dhammapada, p. 3.